NOPD better at handling domestic violence and sex crimes, monitors say, but some flaws persist _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--NEw Orleans Police Department Superintendent Michael Harrison talks to reporters about newly acquired police vehicles and the officer involved shooting Sunday on the top of the NOPD parking garage in New Orleans, La. Monday, Oct. 12, 2015.

Thaddeus McKee took aim at his girlfriend as she cradled a baby on a New Orleans East street one November morning and let loose seven shots, police alleged — fortunately missing both of them.

McKee was arrested and booked on two counts of attempted murder, but frustrated neighbors said it took repeated calls to 911 before police arrived, 90 minutes after the shooting.

New Orleans Police Department data say only 20 minutes passed. Either way, the case was part of a pattern of what federal watchdogs have described as “disturbing and unacceptable” lags in response times to calls about domestic violence, a symptom of the force’s overall manpower shortage.

Federal monitors have recently praised the department, however, for improving its handling of domestic violence calls, and they said the NOPD’s once-troubled Sex Crimes Unit now appears to be on the right track.

Overall, the federal monitors said in their Feb. 26 report that the department is doing an inconsistent but better job of eliminating gender bias in policing, a key component of the force’s 2012 reform agreement with the U.S. government.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu unveiled a wide-reaching plan in 2014 aimed at better response to cases of relationship violence. In their most recent report, the federal overseers attempted to assess the plan’s progress.

The force’s centralized Domestic Violence Unit, now housed along with social service providers at the New Orleans Family Justice Center, got high marks. The monitors said that in the 27 cases from May to August 2015 they evaluated, the unit’s investigations were professional and proactive, supervisors did a good job of reviewing reports, and warrants were issued when necessary.

Getting victims in through the door in the first place, however, was a problem. Beat cops must first respond to crime scenes and make crucial decisions about whether to pursue cases. Police were hard-pressed to respond to all crimes last year because of manpower issues, and domestic violence crimes were no exception.

In May 2011, it took officers an average of 51 minutes to arrive on the scene of 911 calls reporting domestic batteries and domestic disturbances, according to a New Orleans Advocate/WWL-TV analysis of NOPD data.

By May 2015, as officers were spread even thinner, the NOPD needed more than twice that much time to get to the scene of a typical domestic incident. The average response time remained above 1 hour, 41 minutes in February 2016.

Federal monitors said that in their review of a random sample of 80 domestic violence cases handled by patrol officers in May and August 2015, 38 percent were marked as “unfounded” — a category that until recently often was used by officers who arrive to scenes too late to interview victims or witnesses.

For the NOPD, such “unfounded” calls essentially do not exist for record-keeping purposes: They result in no reports, and they are not tallied in year-end crime statistics. That was troubling to the monitors, who said it risked making the Police Department appear indifferent to the plight of victims.

Felicia Reese, who was across the street that day in November when police said McKee shot at his girlfriend and their child, put her criticism in blunter terms.

“An hour and 35 minutes is too long,” Reese said, referring to the amount of time she claimed it took officers to arrive. “Domestic violence is real. They have to enforce those laws.”

Tyler Gamble, a department spokesman, said Police Superintendent Michael Harrison’s recent decision to redeploy dozens of officers to the streets is meant to improve all response times, which should lead to quicker domestic violence responses. Harrison hopes to have more than 90 additional officers on the streets by the end of March.

He also has cracked down on the use of “unfounded” as a disposition for calls, requiring officers to make more aggressive attempts to reach 911 callers if there’s no one at the scene when they arrive.

In addition to highlighting the number of “unfounded” calls, the monitors examined how police handled domestic violence incidents in May and August of 2015 when victims were still present. The monitors said most cases were handled professionally.

Still, there were some disturbing incidents. For instance, in one May case, an officer responded to a report of a man beating a woman who was holding a baby in a hotel. By the time the officer arrived, the man had left. The officer spoke to the victim over the phone — but never went to her room to confirm that she was OK, the monitors said.

“In those kind of situations, we’re taking swift action, whether it’s disciplinary, retraining or things like that,” said Gamble, the NOPD spokesman.

Gamble said officers are being continually retrained in the new domestic-violence policies that went into effect in April 2015, under the initiative launched by Landrieu. The monitors said that 20 of 25 cases they looked at in May were handled professionally; by August, that number had improved to 26 of 27 cases.

The monitors took a separate look at the NOPD’s Sex Crimes Unit, which came under heavy criticism from Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux in 2014 for shoddy investigations. In a review of 33 randomly selected cases from May and August 2015, the federal monitors said they had found “significant” improvements over the unit’s previous work.

They said sex-crimes detectives were now in full or near-compliance with the monitors’ goals on key points like paying attention to a victim’s needs, seeking supervisors’ approval when upgrading or downgrading crimes, and recording the results of investigations.

The monitors found some rough spots when it came to record-keeping, however. In 22 percent of cases, no victim’s statement had been placed in a case file, although investigators indicated a statement had been taken in most of those cases. In 15 percent of cases, there was no record of whether investigators had searched for video, which can be especially crucial in sex cases — including the case of a sexual assault said to have occurred on Canal Street. In 19 percent of the cases reviewed, evidence receipts were missing.

Overall, the monitors said the unit was on the “right track” but that they believe it needs more detectives in order to catch up with work. The monitors also said the Domestic Violence Unit is short-staffed.

“It’s definitely a priority of ours to continue to rebuild Domestic Violence and the Special Victims Section,” Gamble said. “I think that is what’s going to end up addressing some of the issues when it comes to tracking down documentation. Detectives are working a lot of cases.”

Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this report.